Resistance is the road to freedom
A reply to Jürgen Habermas
[This week I begin a tour of Austria and Germany to discuss my book Fascismus: Und Wie Mann Ihn Stoppt. This will put me straight into the debate on the German left about support for Ukraine, the critiques of Scholz, and the Habermas article defending him. As preparation I’ve written this response to Habermas essay in Suddeutsche Zeitung. There’s a great backgrounder on the argument by my New Statesman colleague Adam Tooze.]
I have never accepted the idea of a “post-heroic mentality”. I was born in 1960, immediately rebelled against my Catholic education, became a Marxist at 16, joined a mass picket at 19 and at the age of 62 am still fighting: against neoliberalism, totalitarianism, fascism and the surveillance state.
Like my generation, I may have failed, but we have been protagonists: we have fought for ideals against overwhelming odds.
Jürgen Habermas asserts that the existence of nuclear weapons, and the threat of mutually assured destruction, makes just wars fought by conventional means unwinnable. By the same logic, the asymmetric power of the modern bourgeoisie — with its militarised police, its digital surveillance, its global reach — should have made us quit the just social war for the liberation of humanity.
But we did not. As a result, progress occurred, even if the overthrow of capitalism did not.
Habermas argues that Ukraine’s war of self-defence is just, but that the German response has to lie within a range of two extremes: the defeat of Ukraine and the escalation of the conflict to a Third World War, ending in nuclear annihilation.
He is correct. He is also correct to warn the progressive youth, and the Green leadership newly converted from pacifism to armed deterrence, that emotional outrage over Ukraine is not enough.
But he is wrong to conclude that conventional wars against a nuclear-armed opponent cannot be won. And he is wrong to assert that, in the world-historic crisis that began on 24 February, that the “broad pro-dialogue, peace-keeping focus of German policy” can be maintained.
This is not just a war of resistance by once country against aggression by another; and not just a war for ethnic and linguistic survival by Ukrainians against fascist-inspired Russian ethno-nationalism. It is a systemic conflict.
That is what Xi Jin Ping and Vladimir Putin announced on 4 February in their joint declaration at Beijing. There will be no more universal values. There will be a totalitarian world consisting of Russia and China, where all revolts will be legitimately crushed on the grounds that they are foreign inspired. And there will be the West, in decline, strangled by “LGBT capitalism”.
What the Ukraine war means, and what Putin signalled in the two Draft Treaties issued on 17 December 2021, is that Russia reserves the right to decide where the West ends and the totalitarian Russian superstate begins, and wants a wide buffer of neutral states in Eastern Europe with no autonomy or agency.
Habermas is aware of the dangerous logic of his position. He writes, in defence of those like Scholz and Macron who have sought to offer Putin an “off-ramp”:
“The focus on ending destruction, human suffering and de-civilization as quickly as possible is not synonymous with demands to sacrifice a politically free existence on the altar of mere survival.”
Unfortunately this is the precise deal being offered by Putin. His chosen method of warfare is barbarity, the rubbleisation of cities, the little noticed ecocide already inflicted in the breakaway portions of Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts.
His message, not just to Ukrainians but to the democratic populations of the West is: to survive you must accept the existence of a totalitarian ethno-nationalist state in Russia, and its right to play a three-sided great power game, with the resulting cancellation the rules based international order, and the negation of the “Responsibility to Protect” principle Habermas himself invoked over Kosovo.
So there are three wars encapsulated in the wider conflict: a just war of self-defence; a proxy war between American, Russian and Chinese imperialism; and a systemic conflict in which the survival of the West as an alliance of democratic countries, and of universalism as the globally agreed doctrine underpinning international law, is at stake.
Faced with that, our appetite for risk has to rise. The Ukrainian army went to war knowing that, if it begins to win decisively, there is a risk that Putin could launch a tactical nuclear strike, symbolically crossing the nuclear threshold for the first time since Nagasaki.
If there was a “post-heroic mentality” in Western Europe in the 1960s, then by the year 2000 it had morphed into the hubristic notion of the End of History — the idea that there were no alternative systems, no principles left to fight for, and only a hollow-chested humanity, where, as Fukayama predicted, real protagonism could only be experienced by terrorists and outlaws.
Since 2000, when Putin unilaterally altered Russia’s nuclear posture to allow for tactical strikes in conventional warfare, the era of “mutually assured destruction” has been over. Russia has abandoned most of the treaty restraints on its nuclear arsenal and, on 24 February signalled that if the West “interferes” in Ukraine it will face nuclear attack. Russian media have since run wall to wall simulations of such an attack, including an explosion designed to create a tsunami to destroy Ireland and the UK.
That has forced people from all across the political spectrum — from Boris Johnson, his party awash with Russian oligarchic money, to Li Andersson of the radical Finnish Left Alternative — to rethink their assumptions about global security.
Every person living in a democracy is now confronted with the following choices.
- Faced with the rise of two totalitarian nuclear states, are we prepared to cease actively supporting democratic oppositions within them?
- Faced with their demands for an end to the rules based order, are we prepared to accept?
- Faced with their aggression, are we prepared to let entire countries, peoples and languages be swallowed up to assuage their ethno-nationalist ambitions?
- Faced for Putin’s demand for joint sovereignty over Eastern Europe, are we prepared to say goodbye to the collective security agreements of the EU?
If the answer is no, then with every act of resistance we are risking nuclear war, because as Habermas rightly points out, Putin is capable of interpreting any reversal as an existential threat to Russia, and therefore as a legitimate trigger for nuclear strikes.
If the answer is yes, then eventually there will be three totalitarian blocs: because if Putin wins in Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, the Baltic States and even Finland will be the next targets for aggression, and the fragile Federal system of the USA will be headed by Putin’s nominee.
Our grandparents faced this question in the 1930s. That’s why, in Britain, France and the USA, appeasement of Nazi Germany was not only the preferred position of the right, but the instinct of the working class. Even the Comintern, on Stalin’s orders, fought for a policy of appeasement after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Of course there was not then the prospect of a nuclear winter. But there was the prospect of a hundred Guernicas and — as a few far-sighted commentators understood — the total annihilation of the Jewish people. To many of the people who decided to fight, the risks must have seemed just as existential.
Yet they resisted. And we must also resist.
Resistance to Putin does not only mean manufacturing and supplying arms and ammunition to Ukraine for as long as its people want to resist. It means supplying intelligence and money. It means offensive cyber operations, sanctions designed to cripple the Russian economy and the promotion of mass, democratic uprisings from Minsk to Vladivostok.
The only moral and political justification for doing this is the universalism Habermas now says, for reasons of realism, cannot be applied to Putin. We cannot bring him to the Hague because neither Russia nor the USA has signed up to the ICC? Fine, but the Russian people can bring him to Manezh Square to suffer the same fate as Benito Mussolini.
I am struck by the generational aspect of Habermas position. He claims that the old generation are somehow more shocked than the young at the imagery of mass warfare in Europe. He expresses surprise at how deeply rooted the normative and idealistic philosophy is rooted among the young. He is openly critical of Annalena Baerbock, and the sudden enthusiasm of Greens and leftists for moral combat with Russia.
He describes this as clash between “contemporaneous but historically non-simultaneous mentalities”. Let’s unpack that idea.
There are two views abroad in Germany — and indeed throughout the West. One view, formed in the past, assumed we could peacefully co-exist with authoritarian rentier capitalism in Russia and China, as the price for maintaining democratic, financially mobilised capitalism in the West.
Another view, formed during the past 5–10 years, is that the whole survival of Enlightenment thinking, democracy and the post-1945 charter system depends on defeating — morally, politically and if necessary militarily — states which have become aggressive, totalitarian and ethno-nationalist.
One reason why this second view is so popular, and has so much emotional appeal to the young, is that they are the ones that will have to live with the consequences. Our generation has had its life, had its Pax Americana, watched devastating wars and genocides happen only to peope at the periphery or in the global south.
If Putin wins strategically, it is the young people of Europe who will have to suffer the normalisation of “filtration camps” and the eradication of all criticism and diversification of media. They have seen the zombie movies, they know what the “Z” on Russian tanks really means, and they don’t like the idea of becoming politically undead.
Habermas is right that:
“A European Union unwilling to see its social and political way of life destabilized from the outside or undermined from within will only gain the necessary political agency if it can also stand on its own two feet militarily”.
As Li Andersson pointed out, on the day Finland decided to join NATO, had the left not opposed European (and even Nordic) collective military agreements, Europe might have achieved enough strategic autonomy to deter or defuse the situation. But it did not.
I have praised Olaf Scholz — both for his decision to launch the Zeitenwende, and for leading a traumatised SPD on the journey from pacifism to self-defence by stages. If Germany had been the only source of arms, ammunition and money for Ukraine, Scholz’s slow and reluctant response could have been classed as criminal. But others have supplied weapons heavier than Germany at every stage of the war, and at the Ramstein conference, Lloyd Austin supplied the strategy.
If a few weeks hesitation and open doubt help the mass of the German labour movement, and even the left, to rise to the challenge of a new systemic conflict, it will have been worth it.
For some that journey may be impossible. Both in Germany and in the Anglosphere, one part of the left has proved unable to see beyond 1914 analogies, and unable to recognise the clear parallels with 1939–41. They too are trapped inside a “non-simultaneous mentality”. I’ve devoted much of the past six months to helping them escape.
What does my position mean practically? That Germany and its allies must be prepared to supply weapons, ammunition, training, money, intelligence and conduct counter-hybrid operations in its own country (using the Federal Republic’s excellent democratic self-defence laws as a model). It must be prepared to accept the risk of an unprovoked nuclear strike on Ukraine — and ready to respond to that with devastating actions across all five domains of conventional warfare, and with actions to stimulate the political collapse of Putin’s regime. It must rule out nuclear retaliation under all circumstances and should rule out first use at the Madrid Summit.
For me, the choice NATO countries made in advance not to take part in the Ukraine war was based on realism: the populations of NATO countries would not support such a move; nor was it necessary to contain Putin and collapse his regime. If he attacks NATO, or uses nuclear weapons against Ukraine, those calculations are no longer valid.
These are all bad choices. But we didn’t create this situation. There is always the choice of surrender, which some pacifist open letter writers have openly advocated. If we reject surrender, then there is only resistance.
Why resist? Because a world controlled by Xi, Putin, Modi and a second Trump will not mitigate climate change; it will destroy the planet slowly; it will — over time — create a totalitarian society beneath the totalitarian state.
So nuclear war is not the only existential risk. And yet at the other side of a mass democratic uprising in Russia and in China, there exists the possibility for humanity to save the planet and come closer to human liberation than ever before.
Yes, I shudder at the consequences, just as I shuddered when the British miners entered a likely suicidal conflict with Thatcher; and when the people of Soweto threw themselves against the Apartheid state; and when I saw young Palestinians engage the Israeli army in Gaza with rocks.
People who want freedom have to be risk takers. People who’ve taken freedom for granted have to realise it is under sever threat, and adjust their appetite for existential risk accordingly.
I will try to get this translated into German asap.